TCHERS' VOICE / English Language Learners

5 Things English Learners Need From Classroom Teachers

4.8 million.

That’s the number of English language learners enrolled in K-12 schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In other words, at least one out of every 10 students in classrooms today is an English language learner (ELL). As the number of ELLs continues to increase at lightning speed, the pressure is on for classroom teachers to examine their practices and find new ways of meeting the needs of this ever-growing population of students.

As an English as a second language (ESL) specialist, teachers often come to me full of questions about what they should be doing to help language learners in their classrooms. They worry that because they don’t speak another language, they won’t be able to provide the support their ELLs require. Yet, I know that with some reassurance and some new strategies, all teachers are capable of being outstanding instructors of English language learners.

In order to help educators on their way to becoming more confident instructors of ELLs, I’ve put together a list of the top ten things ELL students need from their classroom teachers.

Here are the first five:

Visuals

Although this might seem like ESL 101, it’s important for teachers to remember just how critical visuals are in ensuring that ELLs comprehend classroom instruction. Visuals give teachers another avenue for explaining concepts to students, and provide learners an additional way of accessing the information they may not have the language proficiency to understand in its written or spoken form alone.

For example, ELLs often struggle to process auditory information at the speed in which it’s delivered during a classroom lecture. Visual cues like photos, graphs, gestures, real-life objects, and even quick drawings help students immensely in following along with the content that’s being presented. In addition, clipart and other images -- when added to definitions, directions, and reading passages -- can greatly increase student comprehension of the written text. Becoming more intentional about incorporating visuals regularly in both classroom instruction and handouts will greatly benefit the language learners in our classrooms.

Here are a few of my favorite visuals resources for language learners:

 

Repetition

Repetition is essential for ELLs to be able to acquire new vocabulary, content concepts, and sentence structures. It’s unrealistic to expect that language learners will be able to process and retain new information that’s introduced only one time.

Here are a few ideas you can use to help build more repetition into your instruction:

  • Rewind that video. Replace longer videos with shorter clips that can be replayed for students more than one time. To keep it fresh for more advanced students, provide them with a different focus question for each viewing of the video. Should you decide to opt to show a longer video, make sure you’ve provided access and/or the opportunity for your ELLs to view it more than one time.
  • Review with students at the end of class. Dedicate the last 5-10 minutes of class every day to leading the students in some type of quick review activity of the information you covered in the day’s lesson. Be sure to incorporate a spoken component to your review, so your ELLs will be able to hear the important information you covered in class that day repeated.
  • Play weekly review games. Once a week, plan a review day of vocabulary and content concepts you covered the last four days of class. This will help you gauge whether or not you’re moving through material too quickly and need to slow down to practice some more. Take a look at Janelle Cox’s article Fun Review Activities, Classroom Games to Do Now for some inspiration in planning fun and engaging review days for your students.
  • Plan for student interaction. Use an interaction strategy like Conga Line or Inside-Outside Circle that requires students to answer the same question aloud multiple times to different partners. The more English learners are able to practice and rehearse the language, the stronger and more clear their answers will become.

As you practice repetition in your lessons, try to incorporate the total physical response technique.

 

Clear Directions

As someone who provides additional support to ELL students with their daily assignments, I can tell you that one of the major barriers to students completing a task is the quality of the directions their teachers have provided.

There are several factors a teacher should consider when providing directions to ELLs:

  • Always provide both oral and written directions. Some ELLs may not yet have the proficiency to process information in its written or oral form alone, so providing directions in both formats can help the students who are still developing their listening or reading skills to better understand your directions.
  • Use familiar vocabulary when writing directions. Many times when students struggle to follow the directions of an assignment it’s because they don’t recognize the wording used in the directions. While exposing ELLs to academic vocabulary is essential, make sure you have thoroughly discussed what words like analyze, demonstrate, and infer mean before placing them in your directions.
  • Avoid giving a lengthy list of directions all at once. Another aspect that can be challenging about understanding directions for ELLs is when too many directions are presented at one time. ELLs will be much more successful at following the directions when they're chunked into smaller segments and they're allowed time to complete the first part of the assignment before receiving additional directions.
  • Provide a model or example of the task. Often times, even the most carefully written directions can be misinterpreted by students. That’s why providing a model or example of the assignment you want students to complete can really help clarify confusing directions and demonstrate the quality of work you’re expecting. Models are especially important for ELLs as they provide language structures the students can incorporate into their own work. In addition, examples from classroom teachers can help guide paraprofessionals or ELL teachers who are also supporting the students with their daily work from their content-area classes.
  • Ask students to explain the directions to a partner. The final tip to consider when delivering directions to students is to make sure you’ve checked in to see whether or not they’ve understood your instructions. A great way to do this is by asking the students to turn to a partner and use their own words to explain the directions of the assignment. After all the students have had a chance to discuss the directions with a partner, call on a couple of students to share their conversations with the rest of the class. This will give you the opportunity to clear up any confusion or highlight any pieces of the assignment the students may have overlooked.

 

Background Information

A lack of similar background knowledge can be another stumbling block for language learners. Many of the novels, textbooks, worksheets, and assessments produced for the classroom are created under the assumption that all students are coming to the table with uniform past experiences. Yet, many factors shape our students’ background knowledge, including religion, nationality, language, and socioeconomic status.

For example, consider the following review question: What do you remember about the four seasons of the year? Depending on where students were born and grew up, they may have vastly different prior knowledge about the topic of seasons. In fact in some parts of the world, students may only have learned and experienced two seasons: wet and dry. What might seem like a straightforward review of past learning can present a significant challenge for students coming from diverse backgrounds. A simple rewording of the question to What do you know about the seasons of the year? opens it up to all learners in the room.

As teachers, we must be aware of the biases present in many classroom resources and identify the background knowledge our students may need before they're able to dive into a reading or activity as written. When reviewing a text or assignment that you want to use in the classroom, consider the following question: What does the author assume that the reader already knows? This will be a great jumping off point in pinpointing the prerequisite information students need before proceeding with an assignment. You might also try a strategy like three-step interviews to activate your students' prior knowledge.

 

Cultural Sensitivity

Research has shown time and again the most significant factor impacting student achievement is positive teacher-student relationships. Students learn better and are willing to work harder when they feel their teachers care about them and have made the effort to get to know them. One factor that’s very important to ELLs in building positive teacher-student relationships is cultural sensitivity.

ELLs respond better to teachers who have put forth the effort to learn about their cultures and are respectful of their diversity. Every culture has its own unique set of unwritten rules. Teachers need to be aware of these differences in cultural expectations and be patient with students who are adjusting to a new environment that may be very different from their native country or home.

Here is a list of some common cultural differences you might encounter with the ELLs in your classroom:

  • Eye Contact: Some cultures believe it’s impolite to make eye contact with a person of authority. Therefore, you may notice that some students will avoid making eye contact when a teacher is speaking to them, especially if they’re being reprimanded.
  • Punctuality: In many cultures, there is much less emphasis on watching the hours of the clock and arriving at the precise moment specified. There is a general understanding that arrival times are relative and flexible. You may notice that both parents and students have different interpretations of what “being on time” means.
  • Asking Questions: As teachers, we want our students to ask questions when they don’t understand something in class. Yet, some cultures believe it’s disrespectful to ask a person in authority questions. As a result, some students may not realize that asking questions is encouraged and appropriate in the classroom.
  • Collective Mindset: In many cultures, the needs of the group are valued above the needs of the individual. Students are accustomed to working in groups and may never have been required to complete an assignment individually. You may observe some students having difficulty distinguishing between group and independent activities in the classroom. Additionally, you may see students making choices that negatively impact them in order to accommodate the needs of others in their lives.
  • Directness: Each culture has its own unique method of making requests. Some cultures value directness and getting to the point in as few words as possible, while others prefer to use subtle suggestions instead, and may never explicitly say what they’re requesting. In the classroom, you may notice students that seem too direct and don’t understand subtle suggestions, as well as students that really hesitate to communicate their needs.

 

Many of the ideas I’ve discussed will benefit all students. However, for ELLs, these teacher practices are essential in ensuring they’re able to fully comprehend and participate in classroom instruction.

I hope this information has provided you some additional guidance and confidence in teaching the language learners in your classrooms. If you found this post useful, keep an eye out for my next post when I reveal five more ideas on my list of the top 10 things English language learners need from classroom teachers.

What strategies do you use to meet the needs of your language learners? Share your ideas in the comments below.


Erica Hilliker is a middle school EL teacher at Forest Hills Public Schools in Grand Rapids, Michigan and also serves as the Vice President of the Michigan Association for Bilingual Education. She holds a Masters of Education in Literacy Studies with an emphasis in TESOL from Grand Valley State University. She is certified to teach English and Spanish at the secondary level. During her career, Erica has worked with English learners at all grade levels, from kindergarten to adult. Additionally, she is a certified SIOP trainer and has led professional development for teachers throughout the West Michigan area. Connect with Erica through her website: Mrs. Hilliker’s EL and SIOP Toolbox or on Twitter: @erica_hilliker.

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